One For The Road

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The blizzard descends as we climb into the mountains. Snow scythes sideways beneath the grey shrug of sky, cutting diagonal patterns of watery white across the windscreen. The Armenian marshrutka I’m sitting in slows behind a pile-up of cars. Ahead, a jack-knifed lorry blocks all three lanes of the motorway. The marshrutka driver tries to manoeuvre towards the left lane and squeeze around stockpiled traffic but soon runs out of narrow gaps and alleys. We’re stationary, too.

The gathered police are nothing more than helpless spectators, while an opportunistic news crew boxed in by the traffic begins filming the scene of panoramic, frozen chaos.

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But our destination, Tbilisi, is the other side of the lorry and mountain beyond, and the driver sees the scenario as an obstacle to overcome rather than a warning to turn back. He eyes the divot separating us from the other side of the motorway. A small gesture indicates his intentions: down, up, around.

The other seven passengers and I get out to ease the weight, piling in to push as the spinning wheels hurl slush into our shins, and bump the marshrutka onto the other side of the motorway. It stutters and swerves as we throw our weight behind it, our shoes slipping in an emulation of the tyres, until we’re miraculously around the lorry and bumping down and up onto correct side again.

I stop and look around. The snow is cutting and whipping in a translucent blur, stinging exposed skin, the visibility lower than the now invisible tarmac. You could probably see more if blindfolded at midnight in an Alaskan winter.

We pile back into the van and slowly, so slowly, accelerate into the mist and mystery ahead. A few other vehicles are following our lead, but the only thing that’s clear is how unclear the odds of this gamble are.

As we forge on, broken down cars intermittently line the roadside, parked at haphazard angles with the bonnet raised as the drivers, bravely, burrow beneath it, trying in vain to salvage the unresponsive engine, their coats zipped high as they duck low, bracing themselves against the swirls of snow and cold. Nobody stops, and those forsaken wouldn’t ask you to. They know you’re not supposed to try and save someone who’s drowning as it just risks a double fatality. Stop and you’re unlikely to start again. Harness your momentum; thrust on into the murky grey-white ahead, let the blizzard swallow them in the rear-view mirror.

All the while I’m surprised to find myself coming undone with joy, smiling at the wonderfully miserable possibility that we might soon be deserted by the roadside, gradually feeling the cold take wrap itself around our skin and bones. On the other hand, we might just exit the end of blizzard unscathed before descending the mountain to the relative safety of low altitude, and beyond, to Georgia. Much like a hot and cold courtship, the excitement lies in the uncertainty.

The oft-overused phrase, “it’s not about the destination, but the journey,” and its many minor variables usually refers to aspiration and careers, all the moments, coffees, offices and meetings leading to your suburban forty-something success as you watch the kids harmoniously playing in the garden. Feet up, newspaper out, a rare day of glorious English sunshine.

Though often overlooked, there’s something to be said for taking the phrase literally in respect to travelling. Journeys are inherently contemplative, which is why the cliché of the teenager gazing out of the car window as their eyes trace the middle distance is fundamental to any coming-of-age film. Clichés are clichés for a reason, a phrase that has ironically tilted over into being a cliché itself, though no less true for it.

There’s something about my suburban middle-class upbringing means I immediately picture most unknown places as flat landscapes with indifferent weather. I can never envisage the character. But in the act of passing through, you get a feel for the vastness, the scope, the scale, the undulations, the colour, the unique energy.

But beyond these inchoate ideas, the aforementioned journey from Armenia to Georgia got me reminiscing on other similar moments I’ve experienced, most of them, crucially, unanticipated. Running across the Belize to Guatemala border at sunset, over a bridge lined by armed soldiers in my flip-flops to reach to last bus. Taking a wrong turn and riding around on the back of mopeds on minefield backroads in Cambodia. Tuktuk races through Bangkok. The time a wheel exploded on a Bolivian bus, causing the bus to violently swerve and nearly fly off the ridged road. Sailing through San Blas and the late night carnage as the wild seas saw water arcing over and onto the boat, the roughness causing half of the broken kitchen to land on my bed. Walking down the train tracks on the ascent to Machu Picchu.

And, of course, that hitchhike in up to Monteverde in Costa Rica. Light was fading, we were stranded in a petrol station with nothing and no-one around, our destination an hour away. As hope was dying, we talked our way into the open back of a truck. Soon, we were winding up into the hills during golden hour, the setting sun bathing the luxurious green valleys each side in auric, halcyon tinges, the light bouncing around in the valleys and off the intermittent grey clouds above to intensify the colours on display. In the distance, the valleys gradually flattened until they fell away to be replaced by the ocean, a dancefloor for the glittering sunshine, the horizon invisible as the blues of the sea melted into the identical blues of the sky above. As we gazed around, breathing it all in, it started raining in the valley on one side. An ethereal rainbow instantly appeared and arched through that valley. Soon it’s raining on the other side of the mountain. A second rainbow appears.

And I’m just watching, laughing, mesmerised.

For the vast majority of those stories, the ones that have stayed with me, the point is that adventure starts when plans go wrong. The unexpected trumps plans, pit-stops and predictability. Chasing newness starts with happy accidents.

It’s something that’s so applicable in everything we do. We all spend half our lives trying to recreate that incredible, spontaneous night, the quiet pint that ended up with you backstage with your favourite band in Vienna three days later. Or, you know, something more realistic. But it’s the one that vibrates with us, makes us spill over with the ecstasy of it all.

But we can’t let it be. Try as we might to recreate it, it’s consigned to memory. No matter how much time we spend chasing the shadow of that night, we know, in our heart of hearts, it can never be replicated. Instead, we embellish and glorify the hedonistic truth every time we reminisce. At the time, it was all perfectly aligned, every moment as instinctive as the next step after a stumble, but the attempted recreation invites the obstruction of thought until you’re just forcing it and losing the impulsiveness that made it so magical in the first place. In the retelling of the original story, everyone knows it’s being aggrandized and exaggerated, but we let it happen. After a while, the lie becomes the truth.

A long-winded tangent, perhaps, something I’m clearly prone to. The apparent point being, as much as I’m guiltier than anyone of revelling in the same conversations in the same places, it’s just stagnant.

Without the promise of change, routines tend to melt me down to a boring, indifferent version of myself. They cultivate a slow sense of listlessness where wasted time is comfortable, living in a public hiding place of coffee shops and indistinguishable tomorrows, which I suppose is an impressive feat in a way given the very nature of freelance work is inconsistency. The days become diluted, just disposable duplicates of identical inaction.

Away from the tedium of monotony, I find the interested, vibrant version of myself that I like, that other people like, the one that spent too long buried beneath comfort and repetition. Expectation is essentially a synonym for routine, so when things go askew and ‘wrong’ is the obvious label, they’re actually going right, as in the blizzard, as in the Bolivian wheel explosion, as in the sunset border run. Tomorrow, bereft of possibility for so long, steals its definition back.

Patterns are for kaleidoscopes, the seats on public transport and the rise and fall of the sun, not wonder. For this fool, at least.

For some, understandably, routines are the lynchpin, the rug that ties the room together, the foundation of achievement. And in building relationships, kinetic coalescence tends to be paradoxically built in one place. I tried, failed miserably, moved.

For longer-term projects, relationships included, I accept that I’ll have to do so myself for certain periods of time, but only if there’s no permanence, a finish line beckoning. And therein lies the balance, the roseability.

Flatlines are for hospitals. Tie me to the rocket. Colour returns.

As I’m writing a portion of this, I’m in the upper bunk of the lower class sleeper train across India. Booking too late, I failed to acquire a ticket to the desired air-conditioned upper class, the pleasant decorum and relative solitude of the carriages ahead.

Below, families jostle for position, men carrying huge tin buckets of tea bustle through crying “Chai! Chai! Chai!” in this strangely vibrant monotone. I leap down to watch the cricket on a man’s phone for a period, exchange stories with some new friends, rip some cigarettes while hanging out of the open doors of the carriage, the palm trees, shanties and lakes of the Indian coast whipping past in a perfectly focused blur as I do so, none of which would have been possible had I acquired the preferred ticket.

And so it goes. Who needs the film or book where the resolutions are telegraphed. Halfway to nowhere soars above certainty, the prison of familiarity. Anticipation is based in the mystery of what’s next. The not knowing. Tumbling naked towards the next and new is the antidote for ennui. The road, the remedy. My muse, as ever, Frank once claimed he was “driven by the irony that only being shackled to the road could ever I be free.” Maybe he has a point. Admittedly airport terminals are bereft of anything to be positive about, but a necessary evil unless you want to take this piece extraordinarily literally and walk to Mozambique.

Back in the blizzard, a scare. The driver, who reminds me of a Louis CK sketch where he explains the time he got high before driving and realised he hadn’t looked out of the windscreen for approximately twenty minutes as he was dealing with shit – the radio, the dashboard, the heating – in the immediate vicinity, is busy trying to make the girl riding shotgun laugh as he chains cigarettes.

Which leads to him losing control. The marshrutka skates sideways and a glancing blow with the barrier at the side of the road follows before we skid and slide on then grind to a halt. A pregnant silence.

Time holds its breath as he reignites the engine and presses the accelerator. The wheels spin, the vehicle doesn’t move. And then, after a weightless few minutes, traction. Slowly, so gradually, we move away again, beyond the blizzard, and hours later find ourselves easing down the road overlooking the bright lights of Tbilisi. A standard journey that spiralled upwards into adventure.

On the road, as in life:

Keep moving. Keep grooving.

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